Israeli confidence hurt by Scud attack Some urge retaliation after Patriot fails WAR IN THE GULF

January 23, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

TEL AVIV, Israel -- The Iraqi Scud missile that dropped through low clouds after slipping past two defensive missiles fell to the mournful accompaniment of air raid sirens last night on a quiet residential neighborhood.

Its toll will be measured in lives, and in Israel's trust of others to protect them.

Initial reports said three elderly residents had died from cardiac arrest from the 8:35 p.m. explosion, the third Scud attack against Israel in a week. At least 98 other people were hurt, three severely. The badly wounded included a baby.

Searchers digging through the debris of two buildings torn by the blast found three survivors.

There was no reaction by the government. The Cabinet scheduled a meeting this morning. But the attack was certain to increase the pressure for Israeli military retaliation.

Military self-reliance is a tenet of this nation. Israelis only reluctantly agreed not to attack earlier, acceding to entreaties by the United States to let the U.S. Patriot anti-missile system work.

The Patriot missiles missed. The U.S. Patriot crew fired two missiles, but neither stopped the Scud, according to the Israeli Defense Forces. The miss will be seen by many here as a bitter reaffirmation of the danger of relying on others.

Israeli military officials said they had not learned yet why the missiles failed to intercept the Scud.

"Saddam must pay!" shouted a young soldier at the scene of the explosion. "We must do it ourselves."

"Now Israel must respond," agreed Ati Nachmani, 26, who was in an apartment nearby when the missile blew open its doors and shattered glassware. "I'm not sure we can do anything better. But we cannot live like this."

The Scud landed atop a three-story, cement apartment building in a suburb of Tel Aviv. The explosion expelled the contents of the building with its force. From outside, it no longer bore the evidence of having held homes. Gone were furnishings and clothes and pictures; the blast stripped cement walls bare.

A two-story building next to it had slumped in resignation to the blast. Its roof had bowed to the ground, and rescue workers swarmed over it.

The scene was a surrealistic one after the explosion.

The place pulsed with the red and blue flash of emergency lights. Emotions ran high. Hundreds of people of varying authority -- police, army, border guards and civil defense workers -- poured into the area. Some manhandled reporters, an often unpopular group here.

The damaged buildings were off the main streets, and the narrow alleys leading to them frustrated rescue efforts. Huge army bulldozers brushed aside palm trees to let a heavy crane maneuver into position to lift chunks of concrete.

Smaller earth-moving machines clambered furiously over the soon pitted alleyway. Their bouncing headlights silhouetted rescue workers moving slowly, poking at the rubble with the slender beams of their flashlights.

All the buildings within several blocks were damaged by the concussion. The streets sparkled with broken glass, and twisted shards of tin were strewn like confetti. Up and down the block, shutters and windows were askew.

The Scud had arrived to spoil the first normal day in five for Tel Aviv. Employees had been told to go back to work yesterday, since there had been no further missile attacks since the first ones Friday and Saturday.

L No one was killed in those attacks, and injuries were minor.

The U.S.-manned Patriot anti-missile system arrived Sunday and was set up by Monday. The success of the system against Scuds in Saudi Arabia bolstered the confidence of those here that the system would stop Iraqi missiles fired at Israel.

At 8:30 p.m. the air raid siren sent people hurrying to put on gas masks. At 8:34, this reporter could see from a high vantage point a flash of orange in the western sky, followed in one minute by the loud explosion of the missile's impact.

"Suddenly there was a terrible explosion," said an injured resident of one of the damaged buildings, who was interviewed by state television at a hospital.

"All the walls of the house fell into the room, and the outer wall fell on my little girl. It's a miracle she is alive" and unhurt.

Officers of the Israeli Defense Forces said they did not know whether the burst of orange light was caused by Patriot missiles exploding ineffectually.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's deputy foreign minister, said the system's apparent failure demonstrated that "the Patriots cannot provide a full defense of Israel's citizens. The threat to Israel has not been removed."

The reaction of other government officers varied from restraint to outrage.

Ehud Olmert, the health minister, said, "The question now is not whether Israel will react, but when and how."

Others urged cool consideration before any action is taken.

Despite the attack, the army ordered that employees again report for work today in Tel Aviv, though schools will remain closed. The three missile attacks so far have come at night.

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